“The God Plot”

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Growing spaces have been a characteristic of both Parson Cross Initiative and the pioneer ministry (Share Ministries) that have run through and alongside each other in one form or another since 2010, and it remains a core element of both to this day.

Currently the charity* operates three separate growing spaces:

  • A community “quiet garden” in partnership with Cross at Yew Lane**
  • A community orchard and growing space at Mount Tabor Methodist Church
  • And a community allotment (Plot76) at Norwood Allotments

Each space is different, and each has its own character, even though a number of those involved are common to at least more than one space. Of the three, it is Plot76 that is the major focus for Share Ministries, a fact that has earned it the unsolicited nickname amongst other allotmenteers as “The God Plot”. So what you might ask marks out this plot to earn it such a title?

I guess one easy answer is that I’m there – people know who and what I am, that is a Pioneer Minister in the Methodist Church. Sure they don’t always understand the “pioneer” bit, and I get quite often the “wrong” denominational title; “Father”, “Pastor”, “Vicar” and the like, but essentially, and intentionally people recognise what I am. However, I think (and I suppose hope) there’s a bit more to it than that.

From the charitys perspective Plot76 is all about social inclusion, this offers one big advantage to me in how I operate in the space in that it isn’t at any level simply about growing food. The plot is a place of community, of belonging – a space where people can come as just “be”, obviously we do grow things, we dig, we plant and sow and come the time we harvest and enjoy the fruits of the season, but primarily it’s about involvement. From the perspective of my ministry on the site, I aim to help create a sense of a Special and Sacred space.

The shelter that has been built is known as (and has a sign to prove it) Sanctuary; a place of refuge. It offers both personal space, but also a “chapel” space particularly when we hold our seasonal gatherings; when we mix music and poetry and reflection, with food and drink (non alcoholic of course being a good Methodist***). It is without doubt (because people have told me) also used during the week at times I’m not there as a place for quiet chats, personal time outs and contemplation.To use quasi monastic terms, the space provides a number of sacred spaces at different times:

  • Cell – as a place of personal, solitarity space
  • Chapel – for community celebration and “confession”
  • Cloister – as a gathering and meeting place
  • Refectory – where hospitality is offered and shared
  • Infirmary – as a place of healing and well being

My regular slot there is on a Thursday morning, when my role becomes that of host – I light the storm kettle and ensure a steady flow of tea and coffee, as well as being a listening ear, and ocassional gardener. Over the years the space has been used for conversations covering a wide range including; addictions and mental health issues, dealing with the loss of  loved ones, the difficulties with coping with deteriorating health, family breakdown, and the nature of Jesus.

Why and how do these conversations happen here? Well I suppose one reason is that I allow them to, encourage them to happen. Allow them to by offering space that is not judgemental and that allows a genuine flow between the secular and sacred, the spectacular and mundane and does not mark the difference, a space that doesn’t seek to provide answers, but allows chance to challenge and encounter. Encouraging them to by being responsive to the relationship that are there, acknowledging the difficulties (where they are present, and they are as in most places) and by sharing myself, my time, my life, my own vulnerabilities – I am not there as expert (gardening or otherwise), I’m not there to be “in control”****,  I’m there simply as companion, as friend, as partner in a shared journey.

 

Is it Church? Not in its entireity, although for some of us there it performs much of the role of church, what it is  is just what it is …. and I’m only too happy to know that to others and to me it’s simply “The God Plot”.

 


* The “charity” being Parson Cross Initiative (Projects) it was given charitable status in 2017 with the registered charity number 1172288
** The Cross at Yew Lane is also home to Creswick Greave Methodist Church
*** The alcohol ban also serves an important purpose as some of those attending activities on the plot have had issues with alcohol and addiction in the past
**** The issue of how we choose to hold power and authority and how we choose to exercise it is an important issue, and especially important I think in pioneer ecclesiology

 

 

Brussels, London or the Kingdom of God

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It’s likely to be yet another tumultuous week in UK politics as yet another Brexit deadline looms. Far from the divisions that surfaced during the referendum of 2016 healing, the split with the nation seems as wide as ever, with people still encamped and identified as “Brexiteer” or “Remainer” years on from the vote. Both sides unable it seems to envisage any compromise. These lines seem fixed around identity, either those who yearn for, and identify as “English” “British” and “Nationalist”, and those who identify as “European”. Obviously I have my own views, I voted to remain in 2016, and there is too much in my upbringing and heritage that will ever allow myself to throw myself behind a nationalist agenda (especially one dominated by the likes of Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Farage & Yaxley-Lennon), however I fear that we need to move on beyond the arguments of the day that still feel overly concerned with economics and trade. So how, I ask myself, might my faith help inform the current division?

This week I have led a couple of explorations and reflections around the Temptations of Jesus, it’s a story that is contained in three of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew & Luke) with the latter two covering it in considerable more detail. The story is placed after Jesus baptism in the Jordan, but before his ministry and the calling of the first disciples. It could be said to represent the struggle Jesus goes through to get his head straight and achieve clarity about the style and approach he will take in his challenge to the powers and principalities of this world.

One of the temptations in particular seems most relevant to our current musings over Brexit and the future of the UK, in Matthews Gospel it reads like this:

“….the devil took Jesus up on a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms on earth and their power.  The devil said to him, “I will give all this to you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

 Jesus answered, “Go away Satan! The Scriptures say:

‘Worship the Lord your God
    and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him.” (Matthew 4. 8-11)

Now it seems to me that what Jesus in rejecting here (at least in part) is the temptation to look for power through earthly kingdoms, rejecting the route chosen certainly by some others, to take up arms or to replace one Empire and / or dynasty with his own. Such a route would no doubt have been available, as plenty of evidence shows the Jewish people of the period were only too ready to rise against the false gods and Empire that was Rome, but this was not the route chosen by Jesus. Not only does Jesus reject the violence of such an approach, but I suggest he also rejects the narrow cultural sectarianism of this approach.

Jesus time and again speaks out against Empire, he longs for community that reaches out through love and compassion, forgiveness and healing – not conflict and victory, and power over others. Jesus, through the call to the Kingdom of God continues the rejection he gave the devils temptation. The Brexit debate (I fear) still remains one that in most minds is focussed on siding with one “Empire” or another, that of either Brussels or London …. Jesus asks us to in effect reject both, to understand that actually the struggle that matters is the struggle for the hearts, minds and souls of all people (including our own). So rather than focussing our hearts on which Empire we side with, maybe we need to instead focus on the values we want to see across the communities we are part of – those same Kingdom values of:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness
  • Healing

These are the things I shall try to look for, try to speak out for, and try to exhibit myself this week and in the weeks to come, as we continue to put faith in the Kingdom that cam overcome all Empires.

 

POSTSCRIPT 9th April 2019

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Deitrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis in 1945 – amongst all the tributes and quotes that people have posted today on various social media etc I came across this one which felt a highly apt addition to this article: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” (Life Together)

 

 

(The artwork in the photo is mine from the Prayer & Paint session held at Cross at Yew Lane – Sheffield this week)

 

 

Breaking Bread with Phillip

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In Sheffield Methodist Circuit we are exploring a two year series of Holy Habits, this month and next we are focussed upon Breaking Bread it felt only right to offer this story as part of this season.

Every Wednesady at Yew Lane (in Parson Cross, Sheffield) a small group meet together to take part in various activities including; creative writing, music and art – we also make soup which we share together around the table at the end of the session.

Now one of our regular visitors is Phillip, he may be also know to other Churches in Sheffield as he loves to go from Church to Church enjoying the company and the food on offer. Phillip always arrives just in time for lunch, sometimes on his bike sometimes on foot – he may spend a few minutes drumming or chatting as he drinks his dark black coffee. He then lays the table, without any encouragement or invitation and settles down ready for the soup. But Phillip has also turned this simple meal into something of a celebration of common union (Communion), a Eurcharistic feast if you will ….

…. every week Phillip brings the bread to be shared at the table; sometimes the bread is “posh” with seeds and grains, sometimes it’s plain and white, and on other occasions it make be squashed and crushed beyond recognition at the bottom of his bag, but always Phillip brings it. Even on one week when he himself couldn’t come he turned up earlier that morning (or perhaps the night before) and left the bread at the door of the church ready for me to pick up when I arrived.

The bread he brings is itself brought from one of the other Church meals he attends, collecting the freely given bread offered through their particular ministry and bringing it to share with us openly and without question at our table – it is as if he carries the symbolic body of Christ – in his backpack.

As we reflect further on our Breading Bread theme, Phillips actions show us that our Eucharist feast, our act of Communion is indeed about sharing in the body of Christ – it is an offer of a “Common Union” for all humanity, offered openly and without preference or judgement, a place where none should be excluded, where God dines with saints and with sinners alike without distinction in the form of Jesus.

Foodbanks and the politics of salvation

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I am getting increasingly concerned and frustrated by food banks, in Sheffield and elsewhere, that think their work is “apolitical” ….  I’ve even discussed the difference between “apolitical” and non party political on social media sites belonging to such foodbanks and I have had my comments deleted.

Such voluntary silencing of the role of and reasons behind the growing use of food banks and other charity food relief is itself inevitably political. Important voices from the past remind us:

“Not to speak, is to speak. Not to act, is to act” Deitrich Bonhoeffer

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” Desmond Tutu

Foodbanks only exist because of a failure in civic and political policy and the way society supports citizens when we become vulnerable within our society. That vulnerability immediately effects our access to the “marketplace” and the accepted ways of providing for ourselves. In the post war welfare settlement, that vulnerability was mitigated by a system of Social Security payments and services that “cushioned” us in such times.. It provided payments to cover the basic needs, rent rebates, free school meals, home help services, meals on wheels etc. That settlement has been under attack for many years in this country and elsewhere as a new “Neo liberal” approach has been pursued by governments of different shades, and has resulted in a much more individualised, privatised, corporatised and charity based approach. Foodbanks have become a key element within that – and although many of us involved in them have struggled to see what alternatives we have, other than to leave people in need, we have played our part. That is why those of us involved in foodbanks (as well as those who support us with donations and the like) cannot simply remain silent as we pass out an ever increasing number of food parcels, and receive praise for the “good work” we do. Either we speak out about the unacceptable nature of what we are a part of or, by our silence, play a part in allowing it to go unchallenged.

It may be that foodbanks, especially those in large franchises (in the UK the Trussell Trust) stay quiet because of fear of upsetting their donor base, be that the corporate support of the likes of Tesco, Asda and others, or the grant funding from the Lottery and elsewhere. Maybe they feel that the general public would not be as generous  if they challenged the very response they are offering as really no solution at all, or maybe they self censor fearing what they may overstep some Charity Commission ruling on “political” commentary, forgetting that most of this revolves (rightly) around party political partisanship – also (it seems) too easily forgotten when MPs of various parties parade themselves in front of the cameras for publicity shots at nationally co-ordinated food drives in supermarkets up and down the country, Whatever the reasons for any self  imposed “political” silence  the facts remain -the solutions we require to do away with the need for foodbanks will need to be political and require both civic and policy changes – the very stuff of politics.

For many church based foodbanks, I fear that the issue is also tied (conciously or not) to their own theology of salvation. They see people as needing to be “saved” and the Church (and God hopefully at least) as being the means of their salvation, foodbanks too neatly fit this narrative. Foodbanks also allow some churches to feel they are doing “good work” in feeding the “poor” and “needy” – and I’m not belittling the sense of value that is genuinely felt when we help and support others – the important question to keep returning to is what am I actually doing, and why am I doing this. Are my actions in foodbank simply an act of personal and collective generosity in that I love giving away food to people when I can – or am I actually making choices;

  • Who decides who gets the food?
  • Who decides who gets referred and why?
  • What do we ask of those who want / need the food?
  • What price are we exacting? (One man at our foodbank recently said ” .. if I could afford to buy a burger at McDonalds it would cost me 99p – here its supposed to be free but every time I come I’m saying I’m an addict – I can’t cope”)

Lets be clear when Jesus speaks out in Matthews gospel and says:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
– Matthew 25:35-36

Jesus is not talking about foodbanks and charity, he is talking about justice and the full provision expected within the Kingdom of God, personally and collective responsibility to one another.

 

 

 

A Picture of Jesus

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This week I was set an interesting challenge by Jane who regularly uses our food bank for additional support, she asked me if “This week when you bring the food parcel …. can you bring me a picture of Jesus …. I want to put it over my bed”. 

Obviously my difficulty  wasn’t for shortage of images that could be found, so many can be easily located just by pressing Jesus in the Google image search engine (and of course this is just what my good friend and colleague Charlotte did). The real challenge came in deciding which one to actually choose from the vast array. Of course there’s  been a push back against the western idealised blue eyed, blond Jesus of the past couple of centuries, but even if these were ruled out it would still leave a vast choice not just of ethnogaphic interpretations, but also of style, stance and theological message.

It made me realise just how personal our choice of “Jesus image” is …. it forces us to ask ourselves, “What am I looking for in my chosen image of Jesus”? For me it would be Jesus as liberator of all humanity, the embodiment of a person wholly human, and wholly divine – a human at one with himself and with God – and the one who showed us what the world could be like in the Kingdom of God. 

Of course the many images some up different aspects of the being and nature of Jesus – and create for us a kind of visual shorthand reference for our theological underpinning; his sacred and holy nature, his forgiveness, his love and protection, his sacrificial nature, his guidance as “shepherd”, along with many others.

In the end I decided I couldn’t (and really shouldn’t) be the one to impose my own choice of image on someone else so I printed two or three different images for her to choose from. A cop out? Maybe. Which did she choose? I didn’t feel the need to ask her – she’ll no doubt tell me if she thinks it’s important for me to know. Will it offer her the peace of mind she sought from it? I really hope and pray it does.

 

 

Choose Love

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There has been much debate and anger in the last few weeks about the above story of a young girl in foster care, it is without doubt that the story as covered in both The Times and the Daily Mail was at best highly inaccurate, and at worst at deliberate distortion of the facts in order to reinforce prejudice about the Islamic faith and Muslims. I don’t want to go over ground already covered here; to talk about photoshopped images, the actual mixed Muslim/Christian heritage of the young girl (AB) at the centre of this case, the complete inaccuracies about the actions of foster carers, instead I want to talk about love.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres”

1 Corinthians. 13.4-7

As well as my “day job” in Pioneer Ministry, I have for the past 10 years plus been a foster carer; I’ve  met and ministered with, and alongside, parents (especially Mums) who have had children removed from their care by social services due to various reasons – I’ve heard and shared their tears, their pain and heartache, their regrets and yes even their anger at the loss they’ve had to face.

In the time we’ve been fostering, we’ve had a number of young people come and go, some have stayed for a long time, and others not. Each comes with their own backstory, their own hurts and issues, sometimes (often) with hurts and issues they do not fully understand themselves and struggle to make sense of. As a foster carer (just like those in the story above) I’m there to provide a number of things; a place of safety, a place where the child or young person can thrive (as best they can) and develop a sense of genuine self worth, a place where they are loved.

But love comes at a cost to all of us. I (and others in my family) have been kicked, punched, and slapped – we been sworn at, spat at, we’ve had things thrown at us, been threatened with knives, seen property deliberately broken, car paintwork scratched and doors and furniture broken. Of course we’ve also had laughs and smiles, holidays where we’ve run through the waves and shared a sense of genuine “freedom” and joy, we’ve seen children grow into young adults and develop their own independence.

Love takes all these things, the ups and downs, the happy and sad, good and bad – it can’t always make things work the way you want, and sometimes it wears you down – completely. You see love isn’t the simple cozy and romantic thing the world often seeks to package and sell it as – love costs.

Jesus knew about the cost of love – it led him to his death and crucifixion, and it’s a choice made by countless others before and since. To love means we make ourselves vulnerable (ironically that’s why so many young people in care find it hard to love and be loved – the cost of that vulnerability feels too high for them – which in turn leaves them truly vulnerable to those whose real intent is abuse not love). But it’s not just them who struggle, sadly other people in sections of our society feel safer hiding from the cost of love. Hiding behind other strong emotions like fear and hate, thinking they can somehow protect themselves in this way, substituting real love, with a false love of things such as money, power, nationhood and even religion. The cost of love is to  be vulnerable, its what the early Christians knew as they were persecuted even to their deaths – but still they chose to love (despite its cost) as to live by fear and hatred was something even worse, or as Martin Luther King Jnr, famously said: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

 

 

 

 

A Radical Christianity

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Last week I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful people, and here a number of inspiring speakers.

First last Monday 8th May, the Chris Howson  was the guest speaker at Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, of which I am currently the chairperson.

Chris spoke to us about the challenges of the Gospel message and the call to a Radical Christianity, In particular he spoke of the need for:
1. The message of a Subversive Gospel to be proclaimed.
2. A Compassionate Christianity to be practiced.
3. A Christianity that speaks out for just whatever the cost.
4. The sharing of a Joyful Solidarity with the vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed.

On the Friday I had been invited to attend the Godly Play conference at Sheffield Cathedral, once again on behalf of Church Action on Poverty. The key speaker that evening was John Bell, well known through the Iona and Wildgoose networks an beyond. John talked about Jesus and the Miracle stories.

He noted that Jesus had “no set approach” to how he performed miracles, each used a methodology particular to its context, sometimes he uses touches, sometimes not …. sometimes they involved groups of people, others only one ….. sometimes they public, and sometimes private, to Jesus a sensitivity to context is crucial. John then went on to show how in the miracle stories Jesus also powerfully addresses powers, authorities and taboos – challenging them is at the very heart of the miracles.

Finally on the Saturday at the Godly Play conference, Peter Privett spoke to us about playful and childhood spirituality. He challenged us all to move from a focus on an “intellectual” faith, to a faith based on experience and wonder. Among the things he left us with were these words from the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz:

“Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who knows only 4 words.
And keeps repeating them, saying “Come dance with Me, come dance.”

 

It’s Friday ….

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These final days of Holy Week are always a special time for me as we contemplate the powers and forces overcome by Jesus on the cross …. there will be time on Sunday to celebrate, but today on Good Friday it’s important to hold onto the pain, the sadness, the cruelty, the betrayal that put Jesus on the cross. Important because, without experiencing the depths of the pain, the victory that has been won is at risk of being cheapened.

We took the decision last week to still run the food bank today despite (or in some ways because) it’s Good Friday, the need for food and especially for the love and grace we try to offer is highlighted not diminished by the crucifixion and passion narrative, we attempt to act as servants who figuratively “wash the feet” of those who come to us for support, without judgement. Some of the folk who came joined in our Good Friday service, others took Palm crosses and prayers, and there was the usual mixture of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety and despair. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard, have both spoken about confidence, suffering and hope in this year’s Easter Message. They ask:

“…Do we sometimes race over the reflection of holy week and the pain of Good Friday, in order to reach the joy of Easter?…”

and go on to say:

“…The Christian vocation means feeling and facing the suffering and injustice of the world, alongside God, until new creation is complete. Staying with suffering and tackling injustice is no easy option but is where Christian confidence takes us…”

 

So on this Good Friday, we hold onto the pain and the suffering, the hurt and injustice, because it matters – the powers and forces that put Jesus on the cross are still part of our world today, and reflected (arguably more than on any other day in the church calendar) today. So we hold on to those feelings – we watch and we wait – and we hold onto hope, even when it seems lost. One of my favourite reflections on Good Friday is this one from SM Lockridge, placing us right in the midst of the pain and the sadness:

It’s Friday
Jesus is praying
Peter’s a sleeping
Judas is betraying
But Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
Pilate’s struggling
The council is conspiring
The crowd is vilifying
They don’t even know
That Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The disciples are running
Like sheep without a shepherd
Mary’s crying
Peter is denying
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s a comin’

It’s Friday
The Romans beat my Jesus
They robe him in scarlet
They crown him with thorns
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
See Jesus walking to Calvary
His blood dripping
His body stumbling
And his spirit’s burdened
But you see, it’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The world’s winning
People are sinning
And evil’s grinning

It’s Friday
The soldiers nail my Savior’s hands
To the cross
They nail my Savior’s feet
To the cross
And then they raise him up
Next to criminals

It’s Friday
But let me tell you something
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The disciples are questioning
What has happened to their King
And the Pharisees are celebrating
That their scheming
Has been achieved
But they don’t know
It’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
He’s hanging on the cross
Feeling forsaken by his Father
Left alone and dying
Can nobody save him?
Ooooh
It’s Friday
But Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The earth trembles
The sky grows dark
My King yields his spirit

It’s Friday
Hope is lost
Death has won
Sin has conquered
and Satan’s just a laughin’

It’s Friday
Jesus is buried
A soldier stands guard
And a rock is rolled into place

But it’s Friday
It is only Friday
Sunday is a comin’!

SM Lockridge – Sunday is coming!

As we served people today at the food bank, and some of us shared in the Good Friday worship in the chapel, these words from Desmond Tutu rang out as a herald for Sunday:

Victory is Ours, so we can say;
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
(Desmond Tutu)

It’s Friday …… but Sunday is coming!

Pastors, Priests and other roles

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It seems like I spend a fair amount of time as a Methodist Pioneer actually defining, and describing exactly what it is I am to myself and to others. It seems to be made more complicated to some because of the fact that I am not ordained, and by the fact that I have work and lay roles that often overlap. As a Methodist Local Preacher (lay) I cannot completely divorce from my day job as Pioneer employed and commissioned by the Methodist Circuit, its impossible; and yet the roles are different. The former brings me into contact and demands I minister (in)to “traditional” mainstream church, the latter calling me to move beyond, to those distanced from that space and those traditions.

So what am I? I’m a pioneer, but I’ve been talked about and addressed as: Pastor, Priest, Lay Minister, Father, Reverend and others…. so let’s explore.

The term “Pastor” derives from the Latin for “Shepherd”,  “Priest” has a more complex linguistic background it seems, emerging from Presbyter (Late Latin) meaning “an elder” and / or  from Latin praepositus a “person placed in charge”. Of course the linguistics aren’t the sole arbiter of what we might now imply and understand by these terms today, but they do give us an interesting start point.

Most obviously Pastor resonates with Jesus words to Simon Peter recorded in John 21.16 “…take care of my sheep”. It suggests a role of care, nurture and guidance “[The role of the pastor is] to help people pay attention to God and respond appropriately.” so wrote Eugene Peterson “… [and to] keep the community attentive to God.”  The shepherd also plays a protective role and where necessary sacrificial one (John 10.11) putting the needs of the “flock” above the needs of self. In the mission context in particular perhaps, this latter part can be very real, as people from our little community of volunteers and helpers put themselves into vulnerable positions sometimes with relative strangers; taking food into their homes, drawing close to them in order to in turn minister to (and receive from) them.

I guess priest isn’t a term we use in Methodism with any great regularity, preferring instead the term Minister for those who are ordained. As a pioneer however, I am working both “within” and “outside” the tradition of Methodism, working with, missioning and ministering amongst people not of that tradition, and of no traditions.

“Chaplain” is a term that I sometimes use. indeed I am as part of my role formally recognised as Chaplain in two of our local schools. Traditionally the chaplain role is to be an ecclesial role somehow attached to secular institution. Typically therefore we might encounter chaplains in hospitals, schools, the military etc. However it is an approach to ministry to feels to somehow fit with much of what I am, and the role I play – encountering the secular over the overtly religious, or ecclesial. The Chaplain role is closer to just being – being present, being alongside, being available as a resource, being a friend – but I guess it doesn’t fit the bill entirely in all circumstances.

So if we go back again to those linguistic roots to consider this “priest” role we see again it is one of being “in charge”. Now where I work there’s a bit of a workplace banter around this, one of our community even bought me a giant mug (they understood my addiction to coffee) with the words “THE BOSS” written big on it. Banter yes, because although I try to hold the role very lightly, although I try to encourage and empower others around me – in the end as the person paid by the Circuit to be here, to be responsible – the scary fact (for me) is, I am in charge!

Priest, is in the end understood as a hierarchical term, and that’s probably for me as good a reason as any to steer clear of using it, but at the same time it would be completely wrong of me to deny I have power, I do – and an authority to exercise it within the bounds given to me by the wider Methodist Church. As all Spiderman and Stan Lee fans know “with great power there must also come great responsibility” and the denial of oneself holding any power is not being in least bit responsible. Each of us has power in different situations, and each of us has to decide how we choose to exercise that power – hierarchical power and authority however brings its own issues and complexities.

And so as I undertook my first baptism this Sunday of the beautiful Rebekah Ann, her young life full of hopes and possibilities; and as the parents, godparents, and church were each asked in turn to make our promises and commitments – I felt myself as both priest and pastor. In charge of the occasion, responsible for dutifully and humbly serving  God and the Church through this particular sacrament, and also aware of the part I was playing in helping each one of us there to be attentive to God and the grace that is conferred upon us all.

A Church that makes you better

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Picture1The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was reported to have once said that the Labour Party “…owed more to Methodism than to Marx”. Perhaps it’s worth considering therefore whether the current crisis facing the Labour Party identity has any parallels in the Methodist Church?

At the heart of the appeal from both has been a message that has somehow tried to balance, aspiration, social justice and personal responsibility alongside elements of social conservatism. Wilsons comments may have a sound historical backing to them, after all weren’t the Tolpuddle Martyrs Methodists? But it is not the only political history to have been influenced by it, Margaret Thatcher in particular voicing her early Methodist upbringing as an influence on the importance of hard work and personal responsibility , or as she said in her memoirs: “Life was to work and do things.” The “natural” pre-Labour home of many Methodists was the Liberal Party, perhaps therefore it should not overly shock us that Methodism has also had its place amongst neo-liberalism, an ideology not confined to one political party alone.

Some of these differences are also mirrored in the varying historical strands within Methodism, the official website of the Methodist Church outlines some of the differences between the Primitives and Wesleyans:

“The sorts of issues which divided the Primitives and the Wesleyans were these:

  • The Primitives focused attention on the role of lay people.
    The Wesleyans developed a high doctrine of the Pastoral Office to justify leadership being in the hands of the ministers.
  • The Primitives stressed simplicity in their chapels and their worship.
    The Wesleyans were open to cultural enrichment from the Anglican tradition and more ornate buildings.
  • The Primitives concentrated their mission on the rural poor.
    The Wesleyans on the more affluent and influential urban classes.
  • The Primitives stressed the political implications of their Christian discipleship
    The Wesleyans were nervous of direct political engagement.”

 

According to Martyn Atkins in the publication “Discipleship…and the People called Methodists”, Donald English, Methodist minister and twice president of the Methodist Conference, used to say, “Remember, the Methodist people want to be better than they are.”

So in what ways do we hope to become better, as Methodists, as Christians? Primarily I suppose, and I hope, this is grounded in John Wesley theology of Christian Perfection. The idea that we do not have to wait until death to gain an ever closer union with God, that what we are now can be bettered as we move towards the God intended perfection of our humanity as demonstrated and lived in the “wholly human, wholly divine” life of Jesus.

But also the idea of material aspiration has also played a role within Methodism, indeed it is one of the themes warned against by Wesley in his sermon “On the Use of Money”. Wesley urged people to use money as a means of serving God, his call to Christians to:

“Earn all you can,

Save all you can,

Give all you can”

has been used, and misused, as a mantra for hard work, careful stewardship of personal finances, as well as for charitable giving. It’s worth reminding ourselves however, that Wesley was very clear about the moral and ethical boundaries he set out for maximising the money we make, his call to save was not an exhortation to store up earthly wealth but rather to “live simply”, and therefore the primary aim was to give as much as possible of the money gained towards the building of Gods work.

Maybe the Church and the Labour Party do share a problem – maybe we’ve both become so in love with the neo-liberal world that has brought prosperity to the majority of our people, that we’ve forgotten to call out the failings of hard work, and personal responsibility. Hard work is NOT a guarantee of wealth or even nowadays of a decent income for our families, sometimes for some of us earning all we can still doesn’t put food on the table, or pay the bills. Personal responsibility is fine but that also assumes a moral conviction to do what is right, not squirrel money away to avoid tax and other liabilities (however legal this might be). We also need to regain an understanding that personal responsibility doesn’t always remain individual – sometimes our personal responsibility is served through a collective, shared responsibility. Maybe in the Church we have become overly focused on our personal journey and relationship with God, and lost sight somewhat of our collective place in the Body of Christ?

But back to this idea that the church is somehow about making people better …. it’s a question that still intrigues me. At the heart of the Christian message is one of healing, hope and liberation – we follow Jesus because of the hope of something better, the need to have our hurts healed to find a remedy for our faults, to live in a better place, a better world – the Kingdom of God. Maybe today it is in those issues of healing, hope and liberation that we will truly find our greatest needs, and maybe the Church can find its place in this?